I’m a mid-40s professional man and I’ve been together with my partner for 15 years. By mutual choice, we don’t have children. My partner loves me deeply and is highly committed to me. Over the past few years, I’ve been uncertain about my feelings. I don’t know if I’m falling out of love or if I’m experiencing some kind of midlife crisis: I certainly feel like I’m not as energetic and virile as I once was. It hasn’t helped that, since lockdown, my sex drive has been rather low. I simply don’t feel as joyous about us as I once did.
We still have lots in common and my intellect feels fed and challenged. Do I have a relationship problem, or do I need to sit tight as I pass through this admittedly rough transitional stage of life?
Eleanor says: There are lots of people who think that if you’re even asking the question about whether you should leave you have your answer.
I don’t think that. I think it’s very common for us to paste our restless discontent with life on to the nearest thing that isn’t us. We blame our location, our spouse, our job, when in fact our malaise is our own and will follow us even if we quit our jobs and leave our families and move to Mexico to start over. It’s worth being wary of the sense that if we change this one thing we’ll finally feel like real life has begun.
I think the question you face here is whether you want your relationship to feel different, or whether you want a different relationship.
That’s an important distinction. Fifteen years is a lot, and it would be astonishing if you’d spent that long together – plus lockdown – with no difference to your levels of desire. A lot of eroticism lives in what we don’t know about each other – in the play between mystery and reality, what’s concealed and what’s revealed. The more you know about someone the harder it is to keep that alive, which is why every relationship loses something when it becomes pyjamas and television (even as it gains something else).
The question is – do you want the erotic, the joy, to come back with this person, or would that feel slightly disappointing because you’d have lost the “excuse” to start over? What sounds more attractive: newness for newness’ sake, or reinvigorating the familiar?
It’s sometimes very hard to tell the difference. So let me ask you a question that looks slightly silly but I’ve found useful for illuminating what I really want. If I held out my hand and offered you a pill that – if you took it – would immediately reinvigorate your relationship, would you take it? Or would you decline because it would still be this relationship, and that fact – no matter how good the relationship could become – feels like a problem?
If you’d take the pill, then you know that you just want this relationship to feel different. That doesn’t mean “sitting tight” – it means being deliberate about bringing back some of the unknown, the mystery, the possibility.
Give yourself a period of a few months where you try with your whole chest to rekindle this relationship, and enlist all the help you can get – read, listen, find a therapist together if you need to. Don’t expect you know the solutions already, and don’t expect feelings will change without behaviour. Deliberately pour into your relationship what you wish it would pour into you: joy; eroticism; the sense of being new. It’s remarkable how often we stop giving certain things as quasi-revenge for the fact that we’re not getting them.
If, after that time period, you still feel adrift and uncertain, it might be time to revisit the question of what you really want. But for now, don’t think about trying to “know” whether your relationship is fulfilling; think about whether you want to make it that way.